Phylicia Barnes: Missing and invisible

The national media give saturation coverage to women who disappear — if they're white, that is

February 02, 2011|By Dee Wright

The Baltimore City Police Department and the local media deserve an "A" for muscling the disappearance of 17-year-old Phylicia Simone Barnes onto the national stage. But the national media deserve a failing grade.

Ms. Barnes, a straight "A" black student from North Carolina, vanished Dec. 28 while visiting relatives in Baltimore. After unprecedented local media saturation and 24/7 police searches failed to discover the missing girl, Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the Baltimore City Police Department, pleaded for the national media to give Ms. Barnes' disappearance the same broad coverage as that given other missing young women.

Consider the contrast between the Barnes case and that of Natalee Holloway, an 18-year-old white woman who vanished in 2005 while on a high school graduation trip to Aruba. For months after her disappearance, numerous national media outlets featured daily, ritualistic broadcasts with pleadings such as "Where's Natalee Holloway?" and "Bring Natalee Holloway Home," until she became a household name.

That same media fascination and saturation applied to the disappearance of Laci Peterson, Chandra Levy, and even Jennifer Wilbanks, the "runaway bride" whose vanishing act was a hoax. These women shared a number common traits, but the main one was their race: All were white.

The media's constant drumbeat personalized their stories and made us care about them. We recognized their faces, knew their families, and felt as if these women were one of our own. Nowhere was the disparity in media attention more striking than in the cases of two missing and injured former POWs during the Iraq War. Jessica Lynch, a white soldier, returned home from captivity to a lucrative book and movie deal, manufactured facts of heroism, and celebrity status. On the other hand, Shoshana Johnson, an African-American who was injured more severely than Ms. Lynch, received little publicity or fanfare, a hard-fought pension one-third the amount of that given Ms. Lynch, a new hairdo and a manicure. No book deal, no movie deal — just anonymity.

Thanks to Mr. Guglielmi's persistent bully pulpit pleas, some national media finally reported, briefly, on Ms. Barnes' disappearance. Besides the Phylicia Barnes case, no other missing black female has entered the national psyche. Of the nearly 1 million people reported missing each year, only white women become the object of media frenzy. With the exception of Ms. Barnes, missing black females generally remain invisible to the public. For this reason, the national media deserve an "F" for inequity in reporting on black women who vanish without a trace.

Why the lack of national media coverage of missing black women? Over the past 10 years, I have tried to quantify this imbalance by developing what I call the "Media Darling ScoreCard." This can be thought of as a screening tool used by media decision makers — whether consciously or unconsciously — to determine who's newsworthy and who is not.

The Media Darling ScoreCard gives grade points for 10 characteristics attributed to potential news subjects. Missing white women always score higher than missing black women, based on their race, eye and hair color, looks, name, family socioeconomic status, and residency, to name a few of the 10 characteristics. Many missing white females earn 10 points for most of the qualities detailed on the ScoreCard. For example, white women earn 10 points for their race; black women, 4. Blonde hair earns 10 points; black hair, 4. For blue eyes, the score is 10; black eyes, 4. And so it goes.

The lower total scores earned by missing black women automatically limit the amount of national media coverage they receive, for they can never match the visual appeal and apparent newsworthiness of their white counterparts. In the broadcast business, missing white women are ratings gold, and their coverage can catapult a channel or news personally to top rankings and cult status. A case in point: Nancy Grace at CNN.

Timely police searches and national media coverage are critical elements in finding women who may have been abducted and taken across state lines. Lives are at stake. As a result, biased media decisions cause missing black women to be victimized twice: by their abductors and by the national media.

Hopefully, the Phylicia Simone Barnes case will prompt the national media to catch up with our local reporters and turn their "F" into an earned "A" by giving equal coverage to missing black women.

Dee Wright, a former Baltimore TV host and high school teacher, lives in Owings Mills. She is the author of four books, including "The Invisible Woman." Her e-mail is deewright10@verizon.net.

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